As we all know, the 1960s and ‘70s were a time of massive political and social change. One of the filmmakers to most often comment and reflect upon this upheaval is a man not usually thought of as a socio-political filmmaker: George A. Romero. That’s right, the zombie guy.
While Romero’s living dead have been seen as metaphors for everything from the birth of a new social order to society feeding upon itself, in 1971 he made a film that employed almost no symbolism at all in its exploration of contemporary cultural evolution. Season of the Witch is a straight-forward drama about an upper-middle-class housewife facing middle age and trying to find her place in a world that’s suddenly changing in every possible way. While on the surface it seems like an anomaly in the Romero oeuvre, thematically it sits quite comfortably next to his other work, with subtle nods to the growth of consumer culture and the commercialization and commodification of all aspects of modern life.
Season of the Witch is also known by its alternate title, Jack’s Wife, which is actually a more appropriate name for this film. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bright woman, but she’s a product of her time. She’s married to Jack, a chauvinistic bully, and has a college-age daughter who is enjoying what it is to be young in the seventies and all the freedoms the era allows. Joan attends cocktail parties and has a nice house and all the appointments her husband’s success affords, but something’s missing. Her religion offers guilt, not comfort. She goes to therapy to explore the hole in her life and her recurring nightmares, but it doesn’t help. Then, her friend Shirley (a quite good Anne Muffly), equally perplexed by life, introduces her to Marion Hamilton (Virginia Greenwald), who might be able to provide whatever it is Joan is seeking. Marion, you see, is a witch.
Romero presents an accurate look at life in the Me Decade, when women were becoming frustrated with their role in the world and the occult was becoming the “in thing.” He displays sharp chops behind the camera, which is restless and always finds unusual angles. And while his creative editing keeps the film interesting visually, he’s delivered a flick that is more tedious, talky melodrama than gripping supernatural thriller. But, hey, dialogue is cheap for a filmmaker to shoot and Romero was definitely a low-budget auteur at this point in his career. The film explores the generation gap, the search for one’s identity, drugs, free love—all the hot-button issues of the day. But it’s done in such a tedious manner that it’s hard to sit through. Witchcraft doesn’t even really enter the picture until more than hour into the film. So don’t do what I did and think, “Ooh, Romero and ‘70s witchcraft!” That’s not at all what you’ll get. Sure, eventually there are candles and incantations, as well as a sudden act of violence that changes everything, but all they do is serve as a means to an inescapable, depressing end: In ‘70s society, no matter what she does to carve out an identity for herself, Joan is and always will be thought of as Jack’s wife.
When viewed today, I think Season of the Witch works best as a time capsule. And though I wasn’t enchanted by it, if Romero has worked his ideological magic on you in the past, or if you just want to enjoy the slang and tacky clothes and decor of the period, maybe you’ll fall under its spell. Stranger things have happened—the ‘70s themselves, for example.